CAIR Report Exposes FBI’s Secret Watchlist Targeting Muslims

The Council on American- Islamic Relations (CAIR) [fn]The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) is an American Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization, founded in 1994 to enhance the understanding of Islam, protect civil rights, promote justice, and empower American Muslims. CAIR works to fight discrimination, bigotry, and Islamophobia, and to ensure that American Muslims can freely practice their faith while fully participating in society.[/fn] released June 12th, 2023 a new report, titled “Twenty Years Too Many, A Call to Stop the FBI’s Secret Watchlist”[fn][/fn]. It reveals alarming FBI discriminatory practices, specifically targeting Muslims. The report found an estimated  98% of the 1.47 million of entries on the FBI Secret Watchlist, concern Muslims. The watchlist is made up of people who are suspected of terrorism but who have not necessarily been charged with any crime. The information on this watchlist includes names, dates of birth, and even fingerprints. The purpose of the watchlist is to aid in the identification and tracking of individuals who are perceived as a threat to national security. The watchlist is shared with various government agencies and international partners for various purposes like screening visa and passport applications, international travel into the U.S., air passenger screening, immigration screening, granting access to U.S. military bases, conducting FBI investigations, and providing support to federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial law enforcement. Furthermore, certain information from the watchlist is shared with the FBI’s National Crime Information Center. [fn],Dates%20of%20birth[/fn]  The FBI had kept this database a secret, but it was leaked in 2019. On 4th April 2019, a hacking group released data containing a list called, “A list of people being watched by FBI”, which contained over 20k entries with full names, companies, work area information, and email addresses. [fn][/fn].  On January 12, 2023,  a Swiss hacker who goes by the moniker “maria arson crime” Swiss hacker gained access to two lists, the no-fly list and the selectee list, after a regional American airline left them on a data server that was left exposed on the public internet and that is how CAIR obtained the information about the records. The list, which was from 2019, contained about 1.5 million entries. However, this included multiple aliases of individual persons, bringing the total number of persons named in the list down, according to the hacker. [fn][/fn]

UK terror expert Dr. Rizwaan Sabir tweeted that the report reveals once again the troubling reality of the FBI’s watchlist and Islamophobia that systematically dominates counter-terrorism in the US and beyond which urgently needs dismantling[fn][/fn] Mayor Mohammed Khairullah of Prospect Park, New Jersey,  who is on the watchlist, declared that the findings were disappointing but not a surprise. Gadeir Abbas, a lawyer with CAIR,  that the group is currently representing about 50 people in lawsuits related to the travel watch lists [fn]The no-fly travel list is a small subset of the US government’s Terrorist Screening Database, which is also known as the terrorist watchlist. The list is said to contain identifying information of “known or suspected terrorists”. The FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center maintains the database[/fn]  and has provided legal services to hundreds of others.“For years, we’ve known, through direct experience that the FBI is using the list against Muslims and the list they are making is a list of Muslim names,” Abbas said.“But when a leaked copy of the list came to us, even we were shocked by just how obviously Muslim the list was.” [fn][/fn] 

CAIR has asked President Joe Biden to dismantle the TSC (Terrorism Screening Centre )[fn]The Terrorist Screening Center (TSC) is a multi-agency organization in charge of the Terrorism Screening Database (TSDB). It serves as a central hub for consolidating and disseminating information on individuals who are known or suspected to be involved in terrorism or terrorist activities. It was established in 2003 as a joint effort between the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and other intelligence and law enforcement agencies.[/fn] as it is representative of the rampant Muslim monitoring and discrimination that began in the early 2000s. They also called for all American citizens to join their demand that the FBI should stop sharing its secret list with other national agencies and international partners as a first step to responsibly unwind the discriminatory practices.

FBI’s Expanding Watchlisting  and its focus on Muslims

The introduction of the reports discusses the expanding power of the FBI over the past twenty years, resulting in detention, harassment, and painful abuse of innocent Muslims. The report presents several severe examples of hardship caused by the flight ban: ordeal travel, profiling at borders crossing, loss of visa and work permits..  to more symbolic ones: like when  Mayor Mohammed Khairullah of Prospect Park, New Jersey,  was denied entry to the White House for the Eid Celebration, despite being invited by the President. According to the report, non-Muslim individuals who openly advocate political violence are generally not targeted in the same manner. The FBI utilizes the watchlist’s power to coerce individuals into spying on mosques in exchange for resolving travel issues.

Federal law enforcement officials state that the primary terrorist threats to the US come from white supremacists, highlighting a disparity between the watchlist demographics and actual threats. According to the Brief published on June 17 2020 by the Washington DC-based think tank CSIS (Centre for International and Strategic Studies),  covering the terrorist incidents in the USA, the most significant threat likely came from white supremacists than Islamist groups like Al-Qaeda or ISIS. The analysis was based on an original data set of 893 terrorist plots and attacks between January 1994 and May 2020. According to the report, right-wing terrorists[fn]The report categorized Right wing terrorists into three broad types of individuals and networks: white supremacists, anti-government extremists, and incels (Involuntary Celibates). There are numerous differences between (and even within) these types, such as ideology, capabilities, tactics, and level of threat.[/fn] perpetrated the majority—57 percent—of all attacks and plots during this period, compared to 25 percent committed by left-wing terrorists, 15 percent by religious terrorists, 3 percent by ethnonationalists, and 0.7 percent by terrorists with other motives.

 In its first section, the report describes how the FBI had developed  “watchlisting”  since the signing of HSPD-6 by President George W. Bush in September  2003. [fn]Homeland Security Presidential Directive 6 (HSPD-6),  called for the establishment of a single consolidated terrorist watchlist to improve the identification, screening, and tracking of individuals known or suspected to be or have been engaged in conduct constituting, in preparation for, in aid of, or related to terrorism (“known or suspected terrorists,” defined in HSPD-6) and their supporters.[/fn] This “watchlisting enterprise” involved aggressive surveillance of the Muslim community in particular post 9/11, saturating mosques with informants who reported on the innocuous happenings of law-abiding religious gatherings. There was a lot of information the FBI was amassing, despite almost no actual crime to investigate. This data was then distilled into a single list of names by deciding who was and was not a threat. As per the 2013 watch list guideline produced by the Terrorist Screening Center and obtained by The Intercept, engaging in terrorism or having a direct connection to a terrorist organization is not necessary for inclusion on the list. Parents, spouses, siblings, children, and “associates” of a suspected terrorist can appear on the list without any suspicion of terrorist involvement. “Irrefutable evidence” of terrorist activity and connections is also not necessary, the document states. Reasonable suspicion is sufficient, though this isn’t clearly defined. The guidelines also reveal that the Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism can temporarily authorize placing entire “categories” of people on the No-Fly and Selectee lists based on “credible intelligence” that indicates a certain category of individuals may be used to conduct an act of terrorism. [fn][/fn] [fn][/fn] As a result, the FBI found a way—for the first time ever—to monitor a person’s activities through all domains of life: at the border, during travel, applying for a federal job or clearance or to get certain licenses or permits, and so on. Since 2003, the FBI’s list has expanded globally, disseminating it to various entities including the federal government, airlines, police departments, private companies, and foreign countries such as Canada.[fn][/fn] In return for receiving the list, the FBI requests those who encounter listed individuals to gather information during the encounter and share it with the FBI to aid in updating the list.

Creation of Second-Class Citizens

According to the report, the FBI’s watchlisting practices have far-reaching consequences that significantly impact individuals’ lives, often subjecting them to a multitude of difficulties, hardships, and denial of various political and fundamental rights. The report talks about how the status of  “known or suspected terrorist” (KST) on the watchlist is a life-defining label assigned by an unknown government official, branding individuals and relegating them to second-class citizen status. This report highlights the various implications of being on the watchlist: interrogations and invasive searches, harsh treatment at land border crossings, international travel risks, immigration complications, the risk of harassment and abuse by local law enforcement, denial of permits and licenses, loss of security clearances, and restricted access to government buildings. The report underscores the extensive and wide-ranging impact of watchlisting, encompassing violations of constitutional rights, erosion of privacy, and the potential for abuse and discrimination.

The Vagueness of the  Watchlist Standards

The report sheds light on the lack of clarity and vague criteria used for the watchlist, which allows individuals to be labeled as terrorists based on mere suspicion. They may be added to the list for being an immediate relative of a listed individual or for being a “known” associate- that is a friend, co-worker, or a fellow congregant of a listed individual. They may be even added without any information about whether an individual is actually a criminal threat. This has resulted in millions of people being listed with over 99% of nominations accepted by the Terrorist Screening Center (TSC).  Complaints regarding the watchlist (from US citizens having find out that they are on the list) have received generic responses, leaving affected individuals with limited avenues to challenge their status. People on the FBI’s list who are not banned from flying receive no information at all. They often realize that something is wrong when they are detained and interrogated at the airport.  Furthermore, critical standards like the Selectee List [fn] The No Fly and Selectee List are two smaller subsets of the Watchlist. Inclusion in the No-Fly list prohibits one from boarding or transiting commercial aircraft in the United States. The Selectee List is used to conduct additional screening on individuals and includes approximately 16,000 individuals. [/fn] who remains classified as government secrets, adding to the overall lack of transparency.

Watchlist as an Invasive Digital Overseer

According to the report, the watchlist, distributed widely among law enforcement and government officials, serves as a digital overseer, labeling individuals as terrorists without providing the underlying facts.  As a result, a law enforcement officer who uses this source for any given case does not know the empirical evidence that led to this labeling. It compels the law enforcement officer to use his discretion in the most invasive possible way and also creates the supposed “reasonable suspicion” that would allow and encourage more invasive or restrictive conduct. So those on the watchlist find that their electronic devices can be searched forensically every time they enter the country, associated with detentions and interrogations.


The reports contend that there is no justifiable or lawful form of a secret government list that can be made accessible to hundreds of thousands of government actors and therefore calls for the discontinuation of this practice.

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